Sleep debt is common today, affecting millions of US adults at some point in their lives. You cannot re-finance or pay off this debt except by making sleep a priority in your life. Many Americans try to compress their sleep time as much as possible, thinking you can streamline the sleep process and squeeze more quality wake time into the 24-hour day. Doesn’t work that way. 7-9 hours of sleep on average for adults is recommended, based on a consensus of sleep professionals.
If you sleep on average 6 or fewer hours per night on a regular basis, you are accumulating sleep debt. The debt creeps into your life in a number of ways. You can become forgetful, struggle to sustain concentration, have slower reaction times, or nod off when driving or during a meeting. You can become irritable and snap at friends and family. Work productivity may fade or else work will suddenly seem more challenging on a day to day basis. Your patience as a parent or caregiver for others may erode. What else can happen? Energy levels lower, and the mid-afternoon slump, a common occurrence, will become magnified. Your immune system becomes more vulnerable and you will find yourself fighting colds and other infections or ailments more often. Persistent sleep debt can drive substance use as a self-defeating remedy for a worn out body and mind.
So what to do? Some people say that sleep is a waste of time. But how much time and effort is expended when you are exhausted with little concentration, grumpy and unfocused, trying to fit more and more tasks or activities into a 24-hour day? While our technology evolves and the 24/7/365 commerce and personal culture barrels on, our body mechanisms still hold on to the vestigial evolutionary functions that maintain the basic processes of life. When these mechanisms are ignored, or perhaps overridden by our momentary needs or priorities, we suffer the consequences of prolonged fatigue, and a dilution of our coping reserves. Even laptops need a battery re-charge. A solution? Resolve in this New Year to regard sleep as a sacred process. What does that mean exactly? It means that sleep becomes a priority activity, not to avoid responsibilities or escape, but as a natural process that needs to be honored for optimum physical and mental well being. Debunk the myth that the need for sleep is a sign of weakness or lack of resolve. Strive for that 7-9 hour target if you are an adult. Enduring in the face of chronic sleep deprivation is not a badge of honor or pride. Create a ritual and set of habits prior to bedtime that reduce external illumination sources and promote self-quieting mental states. Strive to go to bed and get up at about the same time each and every day. Remember how you felt after a complete night of restorative sleep? How much value do you place on that experience? Try a two-week experiment and carve out that sacred time and space for sleep and observe how you are doing. Do your friends, family members or co-workers notice anything different about you? Are you actually in a better mood or more productive when you are at work or school? There is a deep body of scientific findings that attest to these truths.
The vast majority of us have the requisite internal wiring and neurochemicals that promote the symphony of sleep. If sleep is hard to come by, there are restorative tools available online or in person with behavior sleep specialists which are surprisingly straightforward and involves changing the way one thinks about and approaches sleep, and forming new habits. An evidence-based approach is known as Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Insomnia or CBT-I. Another avenue is to pay attention to our body clock rhythms to divine personal best times for sleep, eating, sex, athletic performances, having a difficult conversation or just relaxing. Medication for sleep is a short-term solution at best and can create a host of unwanted side effects, some of which are potentially dangerous such as dizziness, balance problems memory loss, sleepwalking, sleep-driving and daytime sedation and fatigue. Some people experience difficulty with respiration while asleep, a condition that could be apnea, which requires medical attention. Left untreated, adult individuals are more likely to experience periods of sleepiness during the day and eventually may be at risk for chronic cardiovascular or metabolic problems. The National Sleep Foundation (sleep foundation.org) and the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (sleepeducation.org) are highly informative and valid online resources for the first steps you take in gaining insights on sleep and body clocks, improving your sleep and re-establishing your natural circadian cycles.
Copywrite 2020 Dr. Michael V. DeSanctis, PhD, LP, ABPP, DBSM, Retired
Licensed Psychologist, Diplomate Board of Behavioral Sleep Medicine
Positive Sleep Journeys, PLLC
To locate behavioral sleep specialists in your locality, consult www.behavioralsleep.org, website for the Society for Behavioral Sleep Medicine